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Pathways to intergenerational understanding.


Changing demographics are dictating a need for increased understanding between the generations. An academic environment is fertile ground for providing experiences to foster this understanding and service-learning can have an important role in this endeavor. This paper will describe an intergenerational service-learning experience for undergraduate students and report the results of a qualitative analysis of their experience.


"Being around both age groups can really make me take a step back from my fast-paced life and learn to appreciate the small and precious things in life."--Generations Together Participant

Over the past twenty years, a variety of service-learning programs have emerged with two models becoming the most prominent. The first model is that of younger people going to senior centers, nursing homes, adult day care centers, etc. and reaching out to the older residents/participants through friendly visitor programs, music, or the arts, with the older adults being the recipients of the service. The second model involves older adults serving children (pre-school through middle school age) as tutors, classroom helpers, or mentors with the children being the recipients of the service. The focus of this study was to explore how three generations, the young child, the traditional age college student, and the older adult, simultaneously impact on each other during a service-learning intergenerational experience.

This Generations Together program, at a university in rural western Virginia, was created to provide an environment where older adults and college students work together to co-mentor a grade school child. The co-learner/co-mentor model is a unique approach among intergenerational program models. The Generations Together study furthers the knowledge base of the intergenerational service-learning field by focusing on what was happening as older adults and college students developed a co-mentoring relationship. This paper will emphasize the learning, both emotional and intellectual, that the college student participants experienced using this model.

Review of the Literature

Intergenerational service-learning began in a formalized way in the early 1960's with adopt-a-grandparent programs and has evolved to international networks for intergenerational service-learning (Newman, 1989). Previous research has shown the benefits of intergenerational programs for children and youth with goals linked to improving school attendance, increasing self-esteem, and reducing substance abuse and troublesome behaviors (Brabazon, 1999; Taylor, LoSciuto, Fox, Hilbert, & Sonkowsky, 1999). Studies have also focused on the positive impact that intergenerational programs have on diminishing stereotypes and biases toward older adults (Chapman & Neal, 1990; Freedman, 1988; Henkin, Rogers & Lyon 1992; Kuehne, 1989; Newman, Ward, Smith, Wilson, & McCrea, 1997). Angersbach (1999) examined interactions between elder volunteers and children in a campus-based child care center. The findings of this study showed that the interactions that were initiated by the volunteers and the children, as opposed to those initiated by the teacher, resulted in particularly strong interest levels among all of the participants. These interactions also seemed to create strong bonds between the volunteer and the children and to create an atmosphere of light-hearted fun. While this study shows a positive outcome from the intergenerational interactions, why this outcome occurred was not explored in any depth.

Blieszner's 2001 study at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University used pre-and post-course questionnaire data and answers to open-ended questions from 117 undergraduate students involved in a variety of intergenerational service-learning programs. Data from the open-ended questions revealed numerous benefits associated with intergenerational service-learning: improving understanding of course concepts, dispelling myths about aging, and reinforcing career choices. The findings from these quantitative and mixed-method studies show us that older adults and young adults are positively affected by their interactions. What is lacking is a more qualitative research approach that allows the participants to express their own thoughts and feelings in their own words. The research conducted during the implementation of the Generations Together program attempted to begin to fill this gap.

Problem Statement

Much of the research to date has been conducted using standardized measures that produce quantifiable results. These studies provide an important basis for more in-depth qualitative studies. The specific questions that arose from the past research include: why do participants involve themselves in intergenerational programs; what is the meaning for participants; and how do the participants make sense of the relationship development process in which they are involved? Additional questions arise from the intergenerational program context: what is the impact of intergenerational programs on the system within which it operates, and what is the impact of these programs on the broader community? In order to further the knowledge base and to inform practice and policy, the intergenerational studies field needs to conduct research that provides a broader perspective. This research will require the use of qualitative and longitudinal studies with the goal of producing a body of knowledge that will both contribute to the success of intergenerational programs and further the "understanding of the basic concepts and theories that underlie these programs and the intergenerational movement" (Newman et al, 1997, p. 96). As Kuehne (1999) states: "Yet good work must be done, and quickly, if we are to provide evidence of the effects of inter-generational programs on our communities and begin to answer important questions regarding the nature of these created (intergenerational) relationships." (p.3)


The Generations Together (GT) program was a multi-generational program that was piloted at the university in this study in fall 2001. Funding was provided through a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service and administered by the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education and Generations Together at the University of Pittsburgh. The goals of GT were to (a) provide opportunities for college students and older adults to build relationships; (b) to address a community need for mentors for grade-school age children; and (c) to provide the opportunity for a qualitative, longitudinal study to discover the meaning of involvement for the participants and how the participants make sense of the process in which they are involved in the programs. The activities at GT involve crafts, nature hikes, movies, games, and theater, with all of the activities adapted to meet the interests and learning needs of the different aged participants. The older adults were residents at a local retirement community, and the college students were enrolled in either a social gerontology or a child development course. The participants were 19 undergraduate college students. They were all Caucasian and all traditional age students, ranging in age from 18 to 22. Thirteen were seniors, five were juniors, and one was a sophomore. Eight majors were represented: five psychology, four health sciences administration, two sociology, two interdisciplinary liberal studies, two communication disorders science, two social work, one nursing, and one communications. Fourteen of the students had prior experience with service-learning courses. The students were required to be involved in service-learning as part of a social gerontology course or a child development course. Generations Together was one of the options, so, although service-learning was a course expectation, the choice of being involved in Generations Together voluntary.

At the end of each of the eight program sessions, all of the student participants were asked to complete a reflection journal entry and were asked for consent to have these journals used for research purposes. The study participants' handwritten journals were typed into a computer as Word documents. They were then analyzed using QSR NUD*IST 4.0 software (QSR, 1997). Key words were searched to see if themes emerged. The two researchers and the research assistant selected the key words based on an initial reading of the journals and direct experience with the students as they participated with the students in the program. Several themes emerged as the data was evaluated. Overall, students developed an:

1) increased self-awareness regarding their reactions to older adults and children as well as of the benefits to themselves of being involved in service-learning and intergenerational programs.

2) increased understanding of the needs of children and the effect of family life on children.

3) appreciation of intergenerational relationships and recognition of stereotypes and the breaking down of these stereotypes.

The students were given open-ended questions to address in their journals. Supporting quotes from journals are given for the three main themes.

1. Benefits to participating in the intergenerational program:

"Doing this project was a wonderful experience. It truly made me a better person. I just wish it never had to end! We really made an impact on the children and older people as they made an impact on us."

"Overall this has been a wonderful project and a great opportunity to get to experience first hand people who are going through different stages in life. I had a great time getting to know everyone and participating in activities and I would LOVE to do it again!"

"I found this service learning project to be very heartfelt and fun. When I first realized that I would be required to do this for class, I was a little doubtful. Sometimes being required to do something enlightens you and opens your mind to new and wonderful things."

"Today was the last day of Generations Together. I was nervous when I signed up for this service-learning experience because I was not sure how it would all come together. But it all did! It was honestly one of my best experiences in college and definitely my best service-learning experience."

"I am very excited about this program. On Thursday afternoons, I would typically enjoy being done with classes and sit in front of the TV. However, since Generations Together began, I readily give up that free time to be a part of this program."

"I have truly enjoyed my bonding experiences at Generations Together and it has added to my desire to teach and be involved with young children. I also really enjoyed meeting the older adults that came. I was able to become more comfortable talking with them and interacting in the retirement community."

"Today was the last day. It was so much fun, yet so sad in a way. I really enjoyed getting to meet so many new friends, young and older."

Students in many ways surprised themselves by their enjoyment of their participation. They recognized that by entering into new areas they could learn through, as well as enjoy, the new relationships that they made.

2. Insights regarding children and their families."

"I think this event really let us see a different side of the children. Children are so unique and each one has so many beautiful qualities. '"

"He did not want to play the game because he said, "nobody will pick me anyways. It made me remember how tough it was to be a child in elementary school. Children tend to get their feelings hurt easily if they don't feel accepted or important to their peers."

"As a psychology major, I've learned to not only look at the surface, but to realize there could be underlying problems deep down inside.... I am really starting to feel for some of these children that seem so excited to see and play with us. It makes me wonder if they are getting this attention at home."

"Generations Together is always a fun "break" from the normal comings and goings of class. It lightens my mood and makes me happy. I was also reminded of the selfishness of kids this week. They were all trying to get the most little paper umbrellas. It was kind of amusing because adults do the same thing, just with different things."

"She had fun decorating her pumpkin, but she requires a lot of attention. I know most children do, but it makes me wonder about the amount of attention and assistance she receives at home. It may not be a lot (because of her family circumstances)."

"I forgot how easily kids can get disappointed and give up on things out of frustration."

Students developed an appreciation for the children as unique individuals who cannot be classified according to specific developmental expectations. They were also able to think about the children within the context of their families and home environments even though that is not the setting in which they saw them nor were they given any information about their home backgrounds other than what they learned from the children.

3. Students' observations regarding intergenerational interactions:

"The older adult says she likes to participate in this program because she enjoys staying with the young so she will not ossify. It is good to see her with such a long outlook on life and to note that she enjoys talking with younger adults and kids."

"It's amazing how her face lit up when interacting with the eight year old girl. They talked like grandmother and granddaughter. They both seemed to adapt to those who were college age."

"I was amused during bingo because I think the older adult was just as upset as the kids about losing. Funny how the same activity is enjoyed by people of such a young age group and an older age group."

"The sweetest comment I have heard throughout the whole program was by one of the little girls. Before she left she went up to an older adult participant and called him 'Papa". A lot of the college students had the same expression on their facers as I had on mine. I was deeply touched. The comment was so innocent and I just didn't expect it to come out of her mouth."

"I witnessed a wonderful interaction between the two generations. One of the little girls was explaining the movie to the older adult and he would listen and respond and really seemed to enjoying their conversation. It was a very heartwarming experience....truly amazing!

"It was interesting to see the children and older adults learn each others' limitations. The "gossip" game allowed the children to see things they might not think of often."

"All the exercises that we completed today really helped everyone as a group see that no matter what individual differences we can all get along. I think it is really important to do these things for the young kids before less positive influences affect their minds." Students were keen observers of the interactions of the children and older adults. They developed an appreciation for the power of the relationship among all the generations.

Implications for Further Research

This analysis focused primarily on the effects on the college students. Future research will focus on intergenerational co-service-learning--viewing the learning needs and outcomes of all participants as equally important. The co-learning concept is new to intergenerational studies and will directly impact intergenerational program development, program evaluation, and research. Further research that is needed in the area of intergenerational service-learning programs should also include studies that will follow intergenerational participants for more than a semester-long program. A longitudinal study that follows participants over a period of years, documenting the long-term effect of intergenerational program participation, could provide information about how participation impacts students' occupational choices, student and older adult choices for volunteering in the community, and family relationship choices. This type of longitudinal study could also document the long-term effect of intergenerational programs on communities and the impact of these programs on implementation of policy (community, state, or national) that encourages intergenerational programs and/or intergenerational relationships.


The students were surprised! No matter what their age or prior experience with older adults, the students surprised themselves about their own reactions, the older adults and children and the interactions between the generations surprised them. Some of the most effective learning comes from expectations not being realized. Unless students are given experiences which help them to "think out of the box", they will lack the creativity necessary to make a contribution to the improvement of the lives of people of all generations. The program was not flawless; there were fewer older adult participants than planned/hoped for. All participants, young, younger, and youngest were able to adapt and profit from the relationships that developed. Learning in the human services takes place through textbooks but, by definition, the business is people and some of the learning needs to take place person-to-person, hi the words of one of the students:

"Overall, this was a very rewarding experience. I think everyone felt that way which is what matters most. I really enjoyed being with all these new people, and l would take another class that required service learning."--Generations Together Participant


Angersbach, H., & Jones-Forster, S. (1999) Intergenerational interactions: A descriptive analysis of elder-child interactions in a campus-based childcare center. Child and Youth Services, 20, 117-128.

Blieszner, R.& Artale, L.(2001). Benefits of intergenerational service-learning to human services majors. Educational Gerontology 27, 71-87.

Brabazon, K. (1999). Student improvement in the intergenerational work/study program. New York: The Haworth Press, Inc.

Chapman, N., & Neal, M. (1990). The effects of intergenerational experiences on adolescents and older adults. The Gerontologist, 30, 825-832.

Freedman, M. (1988). Partners in growth: Elder mentors and at-risk youth. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

Henkin, N., Rogers, A., & Lyons, M. (1992). Linking lifetimes: A national mentoring initiative summary report. Philadelphia, PA: Center for Intergenerational Learning, Temple University.

Kuehne, V. (Ed.). (1999). Intergenerational programs: Understanding what we have created. New York: The Haworth Press, Inc.

Kuehne, V. (1989). Younger friends/older friends: A study of intergenerational interactions. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 24, 14-21.

Newman, S. (1989). A history of intergenerational programs. In S. Newman and S.Brummel (Eds.), Intergenerational programs: Imperatives, impacts, trends, 1-16. New York: The Haworth Press, Inc.

Newman, S., Ward, C., Smith, T., Wilson, J. & McCrea, J. (1997). Intergenerational programs: Past, present and future. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis. QSR NUD*IST 4.0. (1997). Melbourne, Australia: QSR International Pty Ltd.

Taylor, A., LoSciuto L., Fox, M., HiIbert, S., & Sonkowsky, M. (1999). The mentoring factor: Evaluation of the across ages intergenerational approach to drug abuse prevention. New York: The Haworth Press, Inc.

Marylin Osborne Wakefield, James Madison University, VA

Carolyn Bartick Ericson, George Mason University, VA

Marylin Osborne Wakefield, Ph.D., has been involved in social work and social work education for 21 years. Areas of interest include intergenerational co-service-learning and caregiving. Carolyn Bartick Ericson, Ph.D., has been involved in social work and social work education for 30 years. Areas of interest include service-learning and child and family welfare.
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Author:Ericson, Carolyn Bartick
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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